Zimmerman never appeared to have a chance to retreat once he got into a fight with Martin. His injuries and the forensic evidence suggest that he was lying on the floor with Martin on top of him and hitting him as he opened fire. In those last moments, Zimmerman was under serious physical threat and couldn’t retreat, so he was legally allowed to use force under a typical self-defense law. (Of course, there’s an open question of whether Zimmerman could have avoided the entire encounter to begin with by simply not following Martin after a police dispatcher told him not to. But self-defense law is generally about whether you’re under threat at the moment you use force, not what happened beforehand.)
This is a key point with “stand your ground” laws: They are only relevant if you can safely retreat from an attack. If you can’t safely retreat, a more standard self-defense law will protect your use of force. If you can safely retreat, a “stand your ground” law is needed to justify use of force — unless you’re in your home, where a “castle doctrine” law may apply.
In the case of McGlockton and Drejka, the sheriff has said that Drejka “told deputies that he had to shoot to defend himself. Those are the facts and that’s the law.” He added, “No matter how you slice it or dice it, that was a violent push to the ground.” He claimed that the law, whether he agrees with it or not, puts a high burden of evidence on the state to show that Drejka was not able to use a “stand your ground” defense.
But Caroline Light, a Harvard professor and expert on these laws, told the New York Times, “[McGlockton] shoves [Drejka], seemingly in an effort to get him away from his girlfriend, and then walks away. The video would suggest it’s actually not reasonable for [Drejka] to fear for his life.” If true, that would mean that Drejka did not meet a key requirement to using lethal force, even under “stand your ground” laws.
“Stand your ground” laws make the public less safe
Despite the controversy surrounding “stand your ground” laws, they have spread rapidly, from only Florida in 2005 to 25 states, according to the Giffords Law Center.
Much of this was part of a deliberate lobbying effort, particularly by the National Rifle Association. At its core, the NRA supports the idea that people should be able to use deadly force to defend themselves from dangerous threats, with little government intervention getting in the way. Hence not just the legal ability to purchase and own a gun but the legal ability to use it even when safely retreating may be possible.
So the NRA and its conservative partners, like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have lobbied state lawmakers to pass “stand your ground” laws. This was part of a deliberate nationwide plan: When Florida became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law in 2005, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre called it the “first step of a multi-state strategy.”
Supporters of “stand your ground” laws argue that they not only legally allow people to defend themselves from criminal acts but also deter would-be criminals from carrying out an attack. The thinking is simple: If would-be criminals know that just about anyone can turn around and use up to lethal force when under threat, these wrongdoers are going to be less likely to carry out criminal acts. The effect of this, advocates argue, is a safer society overall.
But the research doesn’t support this. Instead, studies support the big argument against “stand your ground” laws: that they legally empower people to use force even when it’s not necessary, and that appears to lead to more unnecessary violence.
A 2016 review of the research, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that most big studies looking at “stand your ground” and similar “castle doctrine” laws — which only remove the duty to retreat in your home — found that they actually correlated with increases in homicides. The one study that found “castle doctrine” was associated with reductions in homicides came from a widely discredited researcher. The others found increases in homicides associated with “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws.
Researchers summarized one of the more recent studies they reviewed: “stand your ground laws were associated with a 6.8% increase in homicide rates, mainly driven by increments (14.7%) in homicide rates among white males.”
Correlation is not causation, so it’s possible that something else is behind the rise in homicides. But the 2016 review of the research, which also looked at laws related to guns that go beyond “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine,” found time and time again that when governments ease access to guns — and make it easier to use such deadly weapons — there are more gun deaths.
Another review of the research, from the RAND Corporation, produced similar findings. It found “moderate evidence” that “stand your ground” laws lead to increases in violent crime. It also linked laws that loosen access to guns, including concealed carry permit measures, to more gun deaths and crime.
In general, this is backed by an even broader body of research that has repeatedly found that more access to guns leads to more gun deaths in America.
As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:
Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry during an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.
Consider Drejka shooting and killing McGlockton: What would have happened if Drejka didn’t have a gun? It’s difficult to speculate, but the presence of the firearm made it much more likely that Drejka was able to escalate what otherwise could have been a non-deadly, if physical, encounter.
Stronger gun laws could help combat this. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
Americans may look at these studies and conclude that it’s still important for them to have the means to legally protect themselves by keeping easy access to guns and an easier time legally using them. But the research suggests that this does ultimately come at the cost of some lives.
There’s a racial component to this shooting
On top of the already contentious debate about guns and “stand your ground” laws, Drejka’s shooting of McGlockton also raises questions about race.
Research shows that Americans are generally more likely to see black people as a threat — and that may, in situations like these, make it more likely for someone to feel some need to “defend” himself.
One series of studies, released last year, used various visual tests to see how people perceive the bodies of white and black men. The findings were consistent: When participants believed the man in the images was black, they generally saw the man as larger, more threatening, and potentially more harmful in an altercation than a white person. And they were more likely to say use of force was justified against the black men than against the white men.
Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.
Another study found people tend to associate what the authors call “black-sounding names,” like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do “white-sounding names,” like Connor and Garrett.
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”
This is just a small sampling of the research, which has consistently found evidence of racial bias.
These issues came up after Zimmerman shot and killed Martin: Why did Zimmerman see Martin as a potential threat to begin with, and follow the boy? Did racial bias influence Zimmerman’s judgment? And does the law — and those who carry out the law — give preferential treatment to the use of deadly force against black people?
After Drejka shot and killed McGlockton, America is again dealing with these questions.
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